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Enlisting the poet: the list and the late medieval dream vision.


The poems of the Old Norse-Icelandic Poetic Edda are particularly given to listing, especially via the poetic form known as the pula. Stefan Einarsson saw the pula as belonging to the origins of poetry and regarded the "list of gods, elves, dwarfs, tribes" common in eddic poetry as a "mnemonic device" (Einarsson 38). One example of the form that occurs very early in the Edda is the segment of the Vcluspa ("sayings of the seeress") sometimes called Dvergatal (the "tally" or "list" of dwarfs). Vcluspa is the opening section of the Poetic Edda, telling of the creation and doom of the world. Following some stanzas about the establishment of the Norse gods, two characters are introduced, Motsognir and Durinn, who are the foremost among a race of dwarfs. While there is some hint that the dwarfs will be involved in the creation of mankind, the poem is obscure, chiefly because instead of giving the narrative account that it momentarily appears to promise, it instead diverges into a long list of names:
   Nyi ok Nidi,
   Nordri ok Sudri,
   Austri ok Vestri,
   Albior, Dvalinn,
   Bivor, Bavorr,
   Bomburr, Nori,
   An ok Annarr,
   Ai, Miodvitnir ... (1)

By conventional definitions, this list does not even qualify as a catalogue, like the well-known list of ships in the Iliad. For the Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics, "The catalogue differs from the simple list or inventory by inch [sic] more descriptive information and by affording the writer more opportunity for digression or thematic devel. [sic]" (Greene 214). The poem does conclude with a minimally narrative moment which hints that something has been or will be achieved: "Pat mun uppi, / medan cld lifir, / langnidia tal / Lofars hafat" ("Uplifted in memory as long as the world lives will be this list of Praiser's lineage") (16). Dvergatal seems, then, to constitute an instance of poetry as almost pure, unadorned list. It is difficult to avoid the fact that it is for the most part an asyndetic series of names, many of which appear in no other context and some of which, indeed, are suspiciously generic. What else can the names Austri, Vestri, Norori, and Suori suggest other than "Eastern-Dwarf," "Western-Dwarf," and so on? It is a list that seems to point to nothing outside itself and seems, as Einarsson calls it, "extraneous," a judgment with which several editors and translators have concurred, leaving the poem out on the grounds that it is an interpolation. (2)

Nevertheless, on the face of it the poem at least appears to exemplify basic poetic skill. With its alliteration, end-rhyme, internal rhyme, and assonance, as a piece of writing this list is without doubt self-consciously poetic. Yet so obscure is the material that there is always the lingering suspicion that rather than the names providing the occasion for the poem, the reverse was the case: the poet suited himself by making up the names. Rather than doing the difficult thing of ordering existing names within the constraints of alliteration and rhyme, perhaps the poet simply invented the names as they were needed. This cannot be proven, and it may simply be the case that an original explanatory context is lost to us. But it is tempting to think that the Duergatal is a creation story in more than one sense. It is self-creating, inventing a race of dwarfs and inventing poetry around them. Its unfolding as a list points to one basic condition of poetry: that it creates lists of things that make metrical sense even where they make little other sense. And its conclusion expresses satisfaction with the result, suggesting that the poet, at least, feels he has done his job of creation: he has brought these dwarfs, and his poem, into being and they will last as long as anyone is left to read it.

Hence criticisms that see the list as "extraneous," something to be weeded out as an interpolation, miss the point. There is a sense in which this is poetry at its most raw, certainly, but in that role what is exposed is its potential for sheer creation. In the case of Duergatal, the latent potential of this act of creation is dramatically exemplified by the poem's more recent history. It is course from this list that J.R.R. Tolkien took the names of the company of dwarfs led by Thorin Oakenshield, as well as that of the wizard Gandalf, in his children's novel, The Hobbit (1937). The original poet was, perhaps, right to be confident that he was involved in a lasting act of creation.

In an influential essay on listing in medieval literature, Stephen Barney has suggested that "Something about the dream-vision form encourages lists.... their dreamy logic avoids the syntax of the syntagmatic" (189). Duergatal is not a dream vision, but it arguably belongs to a closely related genre. For Voluspa is at least in part a prophecy and the prophetic mode is found throughout the Poetic Edda--even when, as here, the "prophecy" is actually about the past. The links between dream and prophecy are strong, as we find throughout the Old Testament: each engages in a suspensive or subjunctive mode of writing as each is about things that have not quite happened. In both forms, it is the list which acts as a kind of conceptual anchor. Dvergatal, as a list, shows that Barney's point extends beyond the dream vision to the prophetic mode of poetry in general.

Barney's comment was made not about Norse poetry but with particular reference to the dream visions of Chaucer: The House of Fame, The Book of the Duchess, The Parliament of Fowls. Immensely more complicated as these poems are than Dvergatal, they are certainly given, as Barney says, to the list. In this article, I focus on the list as it appears in dream visions. While I make reference to Chaucer, I am most interested in his successors, and the literary grey area which sits between medieval and early modern in the reign of Henry VII. Such writers as John Skelton and Stephen Hawes used the dream vision form, as it had been earlier fashioned by Chaucer on the basis of French models; Skelton fully espouses the potentials of this tradition, which includes an excessive development of the technique of the list, intrinsic to the form which Chaucer inherited. Hawes, by contrast, one of the last practitioners of the dream vision, eschews the technique.

Unlike the unnamed eddic poet, the writers of dream visions are centrally concerned with their own names and their standing. For them the list never stands as a self-evident creative act. Rather, it is part of a poetics of legitimation on the part of poets who, far from being content to live anonymously to posterity through a poem, use poetry to ward off uncomfortable questions about their literary standing, and their place in the contemporary world.


There are many lists in Chaucer's poetry. One of the best-known is the list of trees encountered by the dreamer in the garden of Venus in the Parliament of Fowls:
   The byldere ok, and ek the hardy asshe;
   The piler elm, the cofre unto carayne;
   The boxtre pipere, holm to whippes lashe;
   The saylynge fyr; the cipresse, deth to playne;
   The shetere ew; the asp for shaftes pleyne;
   The olyve of pes, and eke the dronke vyne
   The victor palm, the laurer to devyne. (Parliament of Fowls,
      176-82) (3)

This is an instance of what Ernst Robert Curtius identifies as the "mixed forest" trope, examples of which can be found in Ovid, Statius, and Claudian. "Whether the species enumerated could all occur together in one forest," Curtius writes, "the poet does not care, and does not need to care." This kind of list, he says, "can also be considered a subspecies of the 'catalogue,' which is a fundamental poetic form that goes back to Homer and Hesiod" (Curtius 195).

Even more structurally important to Chaucerian dream visions are lists of prior authors. In The House of Fame, a poem which has been described as "riddled with lists" (Ruffolo 326), one of the most important lists occurs in Fame's hall, where the dreamer (who, like the poet himself, bears the name of Geoffrey) discovers a colonnade of metal pillars, each one of which is topped by a classical author, the first of whom is the Jewish historian Josephus; elsewhere are Statius, Homer, Dares Phrygius, and others. It is as he is observing these figures that the dreamer becomes aware of great companies of supplicants entering Fame's hall and one of the main sections of the poem then develops as these supplicants make their various pleas before the goddess Fame. This culminates in one of the most quoted lines of the poem in which the dreamer Geffrey says "Sufficeth me, as I were ded, / That no wight have my name in honde. /I wot myself best how y stonde" (1876-78). This moment is one of resistance to the list: for Geffrey, the prior authors are irrelevant to his sense of his own standing.

Barney's essay is fundamental for any thinking about the Chaucerian list, which, as the previous examples suggest, were certainly integral to his poetry. Barney himself, however, goes no further in asking what (or even whether) Chaucer thought about his lists collectively. It is reasonable to think that when Chaucer produced his "mixed-forest" catalogue in the Parliament of Fowls, and elsewhere listed many different kinds of tree burnt in Arcite's funeral pyre in the Knight's Tale, he was self-conscious about what he was doing and knew that these lists were generically related. But did he think this kind of list was the same as, or even related to, the list of classical literary authorities in the House of Fame? In Middle English, the word "list" exists but it does not have the sense in which I am using it here. Did Middle English, therefore, have the concept of the list?

In his working life at the customs house or in any of his other bureaucratic roles, Chaucer would no doubt have dealt with various kinds of lists as we would understand them today: lists of numbers, lists of items for export. What he would have understood by the word "list," however, was the piece of paper or perhaps cloth on which a series of items were written down, not the words on the paper themselves or the concept of a rank of similar or related items. The word "list"--in the Middle Ages and for a long time afterward--referred to a border or hem, the edging on a piece of clothing or cloth. The place in which tilting at a tournament took place was called "the lists" possibly by figurative extension from the first sense, because these lists were also a long and narrow bordering space (OED s.v. list, [n..sup.3]).

Hence "list" in our modern sense of a catalogue of names or figures or words seems to have been derived by metonymy from the earlier sense in which it referred to the material thing on which such a catalogue was written. This newer sense can be seen in use in Shakespeare. The "list of landless resolutes" described as "Sharked up" by young Fortinbras (Hamlet I.i.98) refers to a number of people who can be regarded as being on a figurative list. But in Chaucer that figurative sense is not yet in use, as the metonymic transfer from the thing written on to the things indicated by the writing itself has not yet happened.

Nevertheless, if Chaucer did not strictly speaking recognize a "list," he clearly liked listing things, even though his different categories were probably understood by him as examples of rhetorical techniques with various names: enumeration, frequentation, catalogue, and so on. They were not one genre of thing, but his dream visions abounded with collections of things in what we would now think of as lists.

The technique was then inherited by Chaucer's successors who clearly see the list in all its possibilities as a central part of the genre of dream vision. Hence, the anonymous fifteenth-century Assembly of Ladies, a dream vision which is highly self-conscious about the Chaucerian example, uses the list as a central element of its construction. In this poem, the dreamer provides the subjective consciousness through which everything is filtered. In his dream he first encounters a series of beautiful women, then a number of lords, who are in turn followed by a large troop of knights:
   And all they were [wore], after their degrees,
   Chapelets new, made of laurer grene,
   Some of oke, and some of other trees.
   Some in their honds bare boughes shene,
   Some of laurer, and some of okes kene,
   Some of hauthorne, and some of woodbind,
   And many mo which I had not in mind. (Pearsall, lines 266-73)

In the Assembly, the technique is so common as to be quite clearly the main means by which the controlling consciousness of the poem apprehends the strange world within the dream vision. As Barney says, Chaucer (and his followers) uses the list form to evade the syntax of the syntagmatic; lists such as this one may appear to be more sophisticated than the asyndetic Dvergatal, but they operate by the same minimally grammatical logic. As we see in such a list, indeed, it is not syntax but anaphora that is crucial to listmaking. Anaphora is in fact very often, as here, constitutive of the list. But also notable in this passage is a figure that could be regarded as the structural inverse of anaphora: occupatio. If anaphora, aided by asyndeton, suggests the endlessly ongoing potential of any list, occupatio, as in the final line of this quotation, appears to shut it down, providing the antidote to the list Yet even occupatio can be turned in the other direction and used to generate a list. In the Knight's Tale, the narrator lists the different kinds of trees felled to make Arcite's funeral pyre and describes what ensues at the funeral in the fashion of a catalogue. But he does so entirely under the guise of not doing so: anaphorically he repeats the word "Ne" in order to claim that he is not telling what he is in fact telling:
   But how the fyr was maked upon highte,
   Ne eek the names that the trees highte,
   As ook, firre, birch, aspe, alder, holm, popler,
   Wylugh, elm, plane, assh, box, chasteyn, lynde, laurer,
   Mapul, thorn, bech, hasel, ew, whippeltree,--
   How they weren feld shal nat be toold for me

The list of what the Knight is supposedly not telling continues at dizzying length:
   Ne how that lyche-wake was yholde
   Al thilke nyght; ne how the Grekes pleye
   The wake-pleyes, ne kepe I nat to seye
   Who wrastleth best naked with oille enoynt,
   Ne who that baar hym best, in no disjoynt.
   I wol nat tellen eek how that they goon
   Hoom till Atthenes, whan the pley is doon;
   But shortly to the point thanne wol I wende (Knight's Tale,
      2919-24, 2958-65)

This is an example of how both anaphora and occupatio can be generative even when, as in this case, the anaphora is notionally in the service of closing down the descriptive amplification. Notably, while this passage does in fact list precisely what it claims not to, there are some things concealed in it, just as the narrator claims there are: he says that he will not tell of some of the peripheral activities at Arcite's funeral, such as the wrestling by fighters who are naked and anointed with oil, and this is fulfilled. More pertinently and intriguingly in the larger context of the poem, we do not learn about Emilye's desire nor what she said on the occasion of her would-be lover's funeral. The Knight assures us that he will not tell "how that Emelye, as was the gyse, / Putte in the fyr of funeral servyse; / Ne how she swowned whan men made the fyr, / Ne what she spak, ne what was hir desir" (2952-55).

By comparison with the relative simplicity of the list in the Assembly of Ladies, therefore, for Chaucer, narrative arises in complex ways from the list, and may do so even as the act of narrative is being denied. In the Knight's Tale the handling is confident, the ironic voice of the Canterbury Tales emerging in long lists that deny that they are being listed. This seems to signal a shift from a more anxious early production such as The House of Fame, where the listed classical authorities verge on the comical yet nevertheless still tower above Geffrey, the would-be poet and pursuer of "love-tydings." The poem hints at a convergence between list and a sense of belonging to a particular world. This would then emerge very strongly in the work of Chaucer's successors.


Among the most eminent of Chaucer's followers, John Skelton, the foremost English poet of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, is a great exponent of the dream vision and shows himself to be an inheritor of the list tradition, amplifying and extending its possibilities (in this as in so much else he inherits from Chaucer). In his early poem The Bowge of Court (not later than 1499), a dream vision is structured by the idea of the list. In a prologue that opens with a faint echo of the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales, a first-person dreamer figure speaks whose name, it later transpires, is Drede or "fear." Drede is clearly a would-be poet, who praises poets of the past and attempts to emulate them, only to find that "Ignoraunce full soone dyde me dyscure / And shewed that in this arte I was not sure" (19-20).4 Falling asleep in an inn on the coast, Drede soon finds himself aboard a ship named the "Bowge of Court," which is steered by Fortune. In the dream vision, the ship "Bowge of Court" clearly represents the desires of would-be courtiers: on board, the dreamer is told by a character named Desyre: "Bone Aventure may brynge you in suche case / That ye shall stonde in favoure and in grace" (114-15).

In the main section of the poem a series of allegorical figures are first named and listed, before the action of the poem then unfolds. That narrative action--such as it is--is itself list-like, consisting of a series of approaches by the allegorical figures to the dreamer Drede and dialogue between them. Each of these figures represents one form or another of courtly vice. One is named "Favell" or flattery, for example, another "Suspect" or suspicion, others are Disdain and Riot. In turn, each comes to Drede in the guise of offering him something particular, something helpful to someone trying to make his way at court. But each figure is finally threatening, obviously not to be trusted, and contributes to an atmosphere of paranoia by questioning the motives of his predecessor. Drede is always overhearing these characters and finding them to be two-faced, apparendy plotting against him. It is an edgy, uncomfortable poem; as f. M. Crawford remarks, it renders "a solitary consciousness whose attempt to decode the secular order gives way to melancholy, paranoia, and solipsistic dread" (371). This is underlined by the poem's startling ending. Dream visions often conclude when the dreamer awakes, sometimes for some reason external to the dream, such as bells ringing. In Skelton's poem the moment of awakening comes about when the oppressed dreamer thinks to drown himself and throws himself from the ship.

This poem perhaps does not offer a particularly strong form of list. Its allegorical figures simply appear in a sequence, constituting a list of courtly vices. But what is central to the poem is that the name of the ship, "Bowge of Court," is itself a form of list. "Bowge" (bouche) of court is the right to dine at court (OED s.v. bouge [n..sup.2]). Hence it is a list to which the would-be courtier does or does not belong, with important consequences for his social standing or even survival. Skelton's poem therefore dramatizes the dilemma of the young courtier-poet trying to make his way at a hostile and paranoid court. His place at court is tenuous at best, with some of his adversaries, such as Disdayne, blankly telling him he does not belong: "It is great scorne to see suche a hayne [rustic] / As thou arte, one that cam but yesterdaye, / With us olde servauntes such maysters to play" (327-29).

Drede himself ultimately concludes that he does not belong here. Seeing a group of "lewde felawes" approach who he is convinced want to kill him, Drede grabs at the rail planning to jump from the ship (528). In The House of Fame Geffrey's statement, "I wot myself best how y stonde" is an obvious moment of list-resistance: I do not want or need to be on anyone's authorized list, the poet is in effect saying. In Skelton's poem, Drede has joined the ship "Bowge of Court" but now refuses this particular form of enlistment, dramatically so, as he moves to leap from the ship. But in the context, Drede is driven to apparent suicide and his opting out from the allegorical court is difficult to accept as a genuine form of resistance to the list represented by the "Bowge of Court."

Skelton was surely himself highly sensitive to questions of belonging and not belonging. At some point after the circulation of this poem in print (no manuscript exists), he spent several years away from court as a parish priest in Norfolk. He later returned to court early in the reign of Henry VIII, to whom he had once been tutor. There is evidence that in April 1512, Skelton was granted the title of royal poet (Scattergood, "Skelton, John"; see also Scattergood, John Skelton: The Career, 187-88). His trajectory appears to represent a journey from outsiderdom to insiderdom therefore. To become orator regis and poet laureate was surely the highest form of belonging to which a poet could aspire.

After he had attained this rank, Skelton completed a very different kind of dream vision from The Bowge of Court, known as The Garland or Chaplet of Laurell. (Dating the poem is difficult: it was printed in 1523 but while some parts of it must have been written after 1509, other parts are consistent with composition in the 1490s.) Like The Bowge of Court, this dream vision is centrally about belonging, about being on the lists that matter. Unlike the earlier poem it is unequivocally a riot of different kinds of list.

The dreamer of The Garland of Laurell is clearly identified as a version of Skelton himself, under the name "Poeta Skelton." The dream begins in a forest, where Poeta Skelton sees Dame Pallas and the Queen of Fame, thereby immediately establishing a link with Chaucer's poem. This pair converses about Skelton's place on the roll of Fame: "regestred is his name / With laureate tryumphe in the courte of Fame" (62-63), but they question whether he is fit to be on it. This discussion ends with a blast of Fame's trumpet and the gathering of thousands of poets. One of the poem's first lists then occurs, predictably enough: it consists of a roll of classical authors, beginning with Quintilian, Theocritus, and Hesiod, and going on to Cicero, Sallust, and Ovid. The list continues for dozens of lines, the classical giving way to nearer contemporaries: Boccaccio and Petrarch and ultimately Gower, Chaucer, and Lydgate. The English poets then appear in ghostly form and Poeta Skelton converses with them before they are commanded to lead him into the Hall of Queen Fame.

It becomes ever more clear at this point that the poem is Skelton's attempt to outdo Chaucer's House of Fame. In Skelton's hands, Fame's palace simply gives occasion for further lists. There is a press of people there, all of them with their different tales. Poeta Skelton is given into the hands of Fame's recorder, a lady named Occupacyon. They encounter a thousand gates, each with a different form of writing above it (587-88). Skelton asks Occupacyon the significance of the gate with the letter "A" above it and she replies that this signifies "Anglia." Given the poem's amplificatory mode, it is as if there is real potential here for Skelton simply to start at the gate named Anglia and go on from there to gates B, C, and beyond, as if this were to be a dream vision that, like Chaucer's unfinished Legend of Good Women, will become a frame-tale which will simply go on and on. The generative possibility of the list comes, at this point, to threaten a hyperabundance of unfinishable narrative. But instead of taking this option, Skelton now looks over the wall and sees a different kind of group of people, of various villainous characters. This provokes a new kind of list, something more in the mode of Langland and Piers Plowman; there is a distant echo of the ploughing of the half-acre in that poem (607ff).

At this stage Skelton is still not quite half way into his poem and there are other and more expansive lists still to come. The arrival of Fame's handmaiden Occupacyon suggested that this poem is all about getting on the list, being enlisted or enrolled on the register of fame. It is a vastly more confident performance than The Bowge of Court. The huge list of authors, classical and medieval, ultimately gives on to the point that Skelton overtops them all. While Skelton overtly praises Gower, Chaucer, and Lydgate--each of whom is represented as wearing lavishly bejewelled costume--he cannot help noting that they lack one thing that he himself wears: the laurel wreath. Laureation is, evidently, the visible key to this poem and its form of enlisting. The laureate poet is the ultimate enlisted poet, the one who is accepted on every imaginable list (including, presumably, that of "bowge of court"). Late in the performance, as if remembering that some measure of humility might be fitting, Poeta Skelton appears to change his mind on the question of being enlisted and requests to be left out of the book of Fame (i477ff). This moment, the possibility of getting off the list, is fleeting. Poeta Skelton is told this is not possible; once something is spoken of in the court of fame, it must go about the world (1483).

Hence for Skelton in the Garland or Chaplet of Laurell, the list is generative of poetry itself. Indeed, so intrinsic is the list in the poem that it could be argued that despite its obvious lavishness of detail, the Garland of Laurell in fact operates by the same poetics of the list as Dvergatal. While it has far more narrative content surrounding its lists it is nevertheless, like the Norse poem, constructed from the list, with the same basic anaphora of Dvergatal at work in the immensely more complicated Garland of Laurell. One of the things that makes it a more complicated version of this principle is its metafictional character. The Garland of Laurell is a set of lists which is about the issue of being on a list. In the earlier Bowge of Court it was about staying off or away from the list. Both poems in their different ways can be said to be about the status of being enlisted, or the desire to be on a certain kind of list (indicating status or fame). They are both, arguably, misreadings of Chaucerian dream visions in this regard.


Stephen Hawes, a minor courtier at the court of Henry VII, wrote poetry that articulates a concern similar to Skelton's with social and literary status. Hawes is best known for a poem entitled The Pastime of Pleasure published in 1509. Unlike Skelton, Hawes does not seem to have been a great success, whether as poet or courtier. In what appears to have been his final poem, The Comfort of Lovers (published around 1515) he presents a cryptically articulated complaint about mistreatment at court, all of it cl0aired in dense allegory. The poem is without doubt as concerned as any poem of Skelton's with status and standing, both in the world of court and that of literary achievement.

Like Skelton, Hawes was an avowed admirer of Gower, Chaucer, and Lydgate and it is no surprise when his poem commences in Chaucerian or Lydgatean fashion. A dreamer awakes in a meadow in which stands a marvellously adorned castle; a lady approaches him and he speaks to her of his pain and lost love. Left by this lady in the castle, the dreamer explores it and encounters his own lost lover, who at first does not recognize him. They have a long conversation in which their identities as "Graunde Amour" and "La Pucelle" are revealed, names apparently linking them back to the allegorical figures, bearing these names, at the centre of the earlier Pastime of Pleasure.

Hawes is very concerned to acknowledge the dream vision genre's past. In all his poetry he is particularly influenced by Lydgate, whom he acknowledges more than he does Chaucer. Like them, he is given to ekphrasis, lavishing descriptive attention on the bejewelled appearance of the castle, for example, and using aureate, Lydgatean language to encrust the poem with recondite description. Given this, it is curious that the trope of the list is either forgotten or avoided by Hawes, whose narrator generally passes up the chance to list. Authors do not crowd around Hawes's dreamer; they are important to him, but they are also firmly dead and unlikely to appear in ghostly form as they do for Skelton. Despite lengthy passages of description Hawes is more inclined to minimalism. In the castle which is the locus of the main action Hawes's dreamer describes:
   The goodly temple/with pynacles vp sette
   Wherin were ymages/of kynges all of golde
   With dyuers scryptures/without ony lette. (Gluck and Morgan, lines

As part of the same description he refers to "The wyndowes hystoried/with many noble kynges" (239). But he does not tell us who those kings were, passing up the chance to list them and avoiding the rhetorical amplificado this might have occasioned. Elsewhere, Hawes will describe things in a minimal series rather than a list, such as when he encounters some important tokens in the castle, which he must make his own: a sword and a marvellous flower, for example. In Skelton and his predecessor Chaucer, ekphrasis is understood as an opportunity to list and thereby to amplify. While Hawes too is also deeply concerned with ekphrasis, for him it leads to allegory alone, not to the technique of the list.

There is a number of conclusions we could draw from this. Stephen Barney's contention, that there is something in the dream vision that leads to the list, is in general warranted even beyond the Chaucerian canon with which he is concerned. Yet individual poets can resist the link between dream vision and list, as Hawes does. I have elsewhere proposed that in the later Skelton and the work of Hawes we see poets self-consciously historicising themselves: paying court to a past that they cannot yet recognize as a medieval past, they nevertheless begin the work of creating the sense of rupture that sets them apart, that makes them part of a renaissance (though that is not a concept they explicitly use) (Matthews). Hawes's poem The Comfort of Lovers suggests that the end of the list in the dream vision is also the end of the dream vision as a genre. Hawes alters the format of the dream vision but in doing so he produces something that nobody seems to want to emulate. This might be because Hawes's work was seen as a dead end, while the explorations of subjectivity of a very different kind found in the lyric poetry of Wyatt and Surrey provide the template for the next generation of poets. But the problem might be equally well that Hawes is a little too successful in trying to portray the allegiance of what he is doing to a medieval past. His poetics of courtly legitimation is deeply rooted in the politics of the early Tudor court (so much so that some of his referents are obscure and apparently irretrievable). At the same time, his poetry is too much intricated with the medieval past; it is ultimately too gothic--which is perhaps why the ultimate destination of Hawes's poetics was its reuse as an antiquarian resource by Edmund Spenser.

Skelton revelled in Chaucer's list technique; Hawes tried to turn away from it. Skelton looks to go past Chaucer by overdoing what he thinks of as one of Chaucer's most important techniques, the catalogue. Hawes looks to reinvent the dream vision by cutting the catalogue out entirely. As in most of the efforts of these poets to define a rupture with the past, they are only partly successful. The dream vision genre's loss of cultural capital in the decades after Skelton and Hawes means that the technique of the list comes to seem a characteristically medieval technique. They themselves, so concerned to define themselves as taking part in something new, are nevertheless inevitably implicated in that medieval past, and their attitudes to the catalogue are one indicator of how a poetic project of a wished-for modernity, defined against Chaucer, Lydgate, and the past, is not yet fully achieved in their work.

David Matthews



(1.) Voluspa 10; both the text and the translation are cited by stanza number from Dronke.

(2.) Hollander gives it in an appendix; Terry omits it altogether. As Elizabeth Jackson notes, there has often been skepticism toward lists in general in eddic verse, which are often regarded as interpolations; Jackson herself sees eddic poetry as "part of a literary tradition which regarded lists and listing techniques as natural to poetic art" with "a legitimate and important place in the poems in which they occur" (111).

(3.) All references to Chaucer are from Benson.

(4.) All references to Skelton's poems are from Scattergood, John Skelton: The Complete English Poems.


Barney, Stephen A. "Chaucer's Lists." The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in Honor of Morton W. Bloomfield. Ed. Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1982.189-223. Print.

Benson, Larry D., ed. The Riverside Chaucer. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.

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DAVID MATTHEWS teaches medieval studies in the department of English at the University of Manchester. He is the author of Medievalism: A Critical History (Brewer, 2015) and Writing to the King: Nation, Kingship, and Literature in England 1250-1350 (Cambridge, 2010). He is currently working on the transmission of Middle English literature in the sixteenth century.

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Date:Aug 17, 2016
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